Wednesday, June 26, 2013

J. Cole - Born Sinner Review

Prior to sitting down with Born Sinner for the first time I had heard only one J.Cole song. That song being "Cole Summer" a track released mere weeks before this album featuring a soleful Lauryn Hill sample which discussed Cole's come up to where he is now as a rapper and consequences of his potential failures. Sincerity glazed all over the track by Jermaine Cole, not ashamed to be self-depreciating while simultaneously discussing his relationship with Hip-Hop. Now while this was my first time hearing J.Cole, it was not my first time hearing about him. The majority of what I heard about him was that he "put you asleep" and "had no appeal" so my intrigue into checking him out never fully blossomed. Heck, I never checked out lead single "Power Trip" until it reached my ears when Track 4 came around. It was only because of the hype surrounding June 18th and the release of Born Sinner, Mac Miller's Watching Movies With The Sound Off, and Kanye West's Yeezus, that my curiosity peaked. I surprise myself when I say that this is one of my favorite releases of 2013, and was (and still is) far and long away from putting me to sleep. J.Cole, with his varied and lush production, has crafted a beautiful album dissecting the bad habits that control most of our lives through the eyes of one whose still conflicted.

The album begins with the end. A toned down, pitched shifted voice echoes "I'm a born sinner, but I die better than that," the same motto that ends the album attended too by a child gospel chorus. Religious overtones come in many different forms throughout the album and it's fitting that the album opens and closes with the reassuring phrase of improvement throughout life. After the viciously hungry opening track landscaping what the rest of the album will be we begin with a sermon from Kerney Thomas, a pastor who exploits those in pain and need of pray for money. It's a powerful opening message to use, especially considering it's purpose is to show a direct correlation to Cole's missteps in life and exploitation of women as evidenced by the following track "LAnd of the Snakes." Cole tells a story of his own sin when he bags a girl in college with no remorse for never speaking to her again, only to incidentally meet up with her in Los Angeles. It's the Land of the Snakes with Cole being the Snake. Almost all of the 14 tracks on Born Sinner deal with Cole and his past sins and future realizations. The album plays out like a contraction between two conflicting brains, that of past and present J.Cole.

Take "Chaining Day" for example. While not one of my favorite tracks, it exemplifies the good/evil contradiction throughout the album. What would you do if you got Cole money? Buy a house; pay off your college debt? For Cole, and many other rappers who reach fame, it's buying the most expensive luxury items, such as a flashy Mercedes or a gold chain. And just when you think he's owning up to his poor purchases by in the ending bridge, he blurts one line that changes that all. "Okay, I lied" which segues into "Isn’t That Some Shit," the only braggadocios song on the album. This isn't the only dispute between personalities on the album either. Take back-to-back tracks "Trouble" and "Runaway." Both shed some light on Cole's personality, one where he's with his cohorts and Henny, while the other is him being sober and mature. Hoes and Bitches is what Cole calls women who don't sleep with him on the first track, while on the following tracks he urges those same women to runaway from him because he's no good. Past and present Cole compete for tracks during the entirety of Born Sinner, it's an exciting tactic to use and one that keeps the listener engaged in his spilt personality looking back on his past mistakes.

Cole's lyrics help fuel this back-and-forth game he plays with himself. Choosing to include no guest verses is a bold move, especially on an album that attempts to tell a story from different personas. Kendrick Lamar, TLC, and James Fauntleroy all make appearances, but only to compliment Cole musically during his various hooks and chorus'. With this lack of guest spots, however, and Cole's rather uninspiring voice the album sort of dulls onwards throughout some of its lulls. I would much prefer a similar approach to The Roots' Undun, where a story is told of a character through many different rappers. While understandably so Cole uses his voice to speak on his own opinion, the lack of another voice to accompany these stories (especially those dealing with conversations between women) means for a boring album at times for those that aren't bored by his sometimes-monotonous delivery.

That's one of my few complaints, but sadly it plays a large part in the long-lasting value of the album. With no guest verses, and a somewhat lack of variety amongst subject matter, Born Sinner's replay value will be somewhat lacking. A large critique of other rappers, such as Talib Kweli and Atmosphere, who make stellar music with deep content who suffer from tenuous music with little need to go back after the first couple listens. Born Sinner could fall into this trap, but with a decent amount of solid tracks, which warrant multiple enjoyment-filled listens (Power Trip, She Knows, LA of the Snakes), the length at which I play this album may be extended. The album definitely seems to drag towards the end, and not helping that cause is the fact that many of the best tracks on the album occur in the first half. Even Forbidden Fruit with Kendrick is surprisingly flat for a track featuring the 2 supposed savors of Hip-Hop. Crooked Smile, while having some inspiring lyrics and a great sample/collab from TLC, comes off as corny and would have faired better as an extra off the Deluxe Edition. And Chaining Day features the poorest production on the album, and being accompanied by unoriginal lyrics on an already played out subject doesn't help the track's potential impact.

While Chaining Day may be lacking on the production, the rest of the album thrives on it. What I soon realized after a few listens is that I prefer J.Cole as a producer and not a rapper. He's a definite lyricist; I just feel his material won't hold up against the best rappers of today. His voice is mediocre and I feel he's falling into the same trap Joey Badass is currently in; formulating great lyrics with a lack of an intriguing voice or variety of topic. Born Sinner's production however is fantastic. Varied enough to maintain interest, a difficult task considering it's coming from one man (I'm looking at you Big K.R.I.T). None of the beats wow, but the quality is consistently great. "She Knows" follows a rhythmic piano, clap, and beat pattern to Cole flows over flawlessly. "Rich Niggaz" is as haunting as it is beautiful, with a piano loop playing softly as the soothing synths bounce back and forth all while rain gently pours in the background. "Let Nas Down," a track solely composed to expose the moment J.Cole knew of Nas' disappointment with his new sound, features a trumpet that speaks of disappoint and disapproval taken from Fela Kuti's 1973 track "Gentleman." The most poignant example of Cole's producing prowess is his flip of Outkast's "Da Art of Storytellin" into something much more mysterious and evocative than the original beat. Many criticized Cole from directly taking from 'Kast without understanding the immense changes Cole made to it, especially towards the end. As the third verse begins the sample warps over itself, oozing recollection as the girl who Cole hits has no remorse for his actions. And as the girl utters, "You ain't work shit, nigga" Cole is taken aback, and so is the best, morphing into a warp of itself, a full circle realization of his actions done in the past.

J.Cole's second full-length album Born Sinner is a fully realized and in-depth look at a man's past sins and his future redemptions (or lack thereof) as he recalls the stories that made him who he is today. While the subject matter might be a little trite and unoriginal in comparison to the vast other rappers in the game today, J.Cole's approach is what gives the subjects he tackles life. He's continually on-point lyrically throughout the album, flow-wise and content, but it's his painfully dull voice and basic back-story that drag out his otherwise stellar album cohesion. He's too humble for his own good. While it does appeal to the masses, many also look up to their rappers as figures who they can't appeal to and who live lavish lifestyles one can only hope of. There is none of that here. Cole is more self-depreciating and accepting of his bad habits than any other rapper today, not allowing for a fully-realized mainstream rapper to blossom. But overall, Born Sinner is a solid listen with lots of content and excellent production backed by a man with the struggle to make it in this rap game. He may have been born a sinner, but he is definitely better than whether that's a good thing to be in Hip-Hop is left to the listener and the general audience.

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